Monday, February 7, 2011

Checking in with Vaclav Havel

. Monday, February 7, 2011

Clintonian, in a way?

Almost immediately [after leaving the Czech presidency] he started setting up an ex-presidential office, something perfectly customary in the United States but largely unprecedented in Central Europe. It was not his style to go on the lucrative speaker circuit (he may be an exceptionally gifted speechwriter but he’s a middling speaker) or to leverage his celebrity in the world of business. He has also largely avoided commenting on public affairs back home. Rather, he has continued in what he was doing for most of his adult life—advocating human rights causes and supporting dissidents around the world—in Cuba, Belarus, Burma, North Korea.

In keeping with his holistic view of the world as a network of cultures, ideologies, and religions, Havel designed and developed a forum where all these strands of modern civilization can meet and debate. The Forum 2000 conference was first held in Prague in 1997 and was intended to be a one-off. But instead it took off. In October, the fourteenth Forum 2000 conference, attended by politicians, experts, journalists, philosophers, and religious figures, took place under the title “The World We Want to Live In.” ...

The model of American presidencies does not stop at offices and philanthropy but extends to a Havel Presidential Library, the only institution of its kind in Europe. It collects, archives, and presents all the available documents pertaining to Havel and his presidency.

Now he's directing his first movie. More here. Havel's words of advice for political dissidents living under oppression, as he was in 1978 when he wrote them, was to live as if you were free:

Is the basicjob of the "dissident" movements is to serve truth, that is, to serve the real aims of life, and if that necessarily develops into a defense of individuals and their right to a free and truthful life (that is, a defense of human rights and a struggle to see the laws respected), then another stage of this approach, perhaps the most mature stage so far, is what Václav Benda called the development of "parallel structures."

When those who have decided to live within the truth have been denied any direct influence on the existing social structures, not to mention the opportunity to participate in them, and when these people begin to create what I have called the independent life of society, this independent life begins, of itself, to become structured in a certain way. Sometimes there are only very embryonic indications of this process of structuring; at other times, the structures are already quite well developed. Their genesis and evolution are inseparable from the phenomenon of "dissent," even though they reach far beyond the arbitrarily defined area of activity usually indi~ cated by that term.

What are these structures? Ivan Jirous was the first in Czechoslovakia to formulate and apply in practice the concept of a "second culture." Although at first he was thinking chiefly of nonconformist rock music and only certain literary, artistic, or performance events close to the sensibilities of those nonconformist musical groups, the term second culture very rapidly came to be used for the whole area of independent and repressed culture, that is, not only for art and its various currents but also for the humanities, the social sciences, and philosophical thought. This second culture, quite naturally, has created elementary organizational forms: samizdat editions of books and magazines, private perfor~ mances and concerts, seminars, exhibitions, and so on. (In Poland all of this is vastly more developed: there are independent publishing houses and many more periodicals, even political periodicals; they have means of proliferation other than carbon copies, and so on. In the Soviet Union, samixdat has a longer tradition and clearly its forms are quite different.) Culture, therefore, is a sphere in which the parallel structures can be observed in their most highly developed form. Benda, of course, gives thought to potential or embryonic forms.of such structures in other spheres as well: from a parallel information network to parallel forms of education (private universities), parallel trade unions, parallel foreign contacts, to a kind of hypothesis on a parallel economy. On the basis of these parallel structures, he then develops the notion of a "parallel polis" or state or, rather, he sees the rudiments of such a polis in these structures.

From The Power of the Powerless, available here.

Here are Havel's thoughts on Egypt.


Checking in with Vaclav Havel




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